Visitors cheer as Jacksonville beaches reopen

Mayors of beach communities urge people to follow guidelines or they could close again

Police and firefighters working to make sure the beach remain safe during restricted hours.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville Beach and Neptune Beach expected crowd when the beaches reopened Friday afternoon for the first time in a month, and they weren’t wrong. A cheer with up just after 5 p.m. when barriers to the beach access came down.

These are among the first beaches in the state to reopen since coronavirus concerns forced most beaches to close.

Hours and activities are limited and Jacksonville Beach Mayor Chalie Latham said Friday that officials will have police, lifeguards and Jacksonville Fire-Rescue personnel patrol the waterfront to ensure people are maintaining six feet of social distancing and there are no groups of more than 10 -- not 50 as was previously announced.

“How long these beaches remain open is 100% up to the beachgoers,” Jacksonville Beach Mayor Charlie Latham said. “We’re looking to keep people from accumulating out here. If they want to come out and exercise, that’s great. If we have to close the beach again, we’ll do it. Safety is still our top priority.”

“This not a time to lounge. This is not a time to party. This is a time to exercise and keep moving,” Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser added.

“This isn’t a day at the beach as normal. This is a first step,” Neptune Beach Mayor Elaine Brown said.

The view from the live News4Jax BeachCam (above) and Sky 4 in the first hour of the reopening showed those beachgoers kept moving and were not gathering in groups.

“People want to do the right thing and follow the rules,” Jacksonville Beach Police Sgt. Jason Sharp said. “It’s a few people out there, the 1 percenters who go out there and there’s an issue with them.”

The beaches will only be open between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Police and lifeguards will notify people when it is time to clear the area and expect beachgoers to comply.

The beaches will be patrolled enforcing the rules during the hours the beaches are open and keeping people off the sand when the beaches are closed.

Since the beaches have been closed, officers have been patrolling 24/7, warning about 20 people a day to get off. Police have only had to arrest two men who didn’t listen to orders to move along.

“There is a chance to get arrested if you don’t listen to us,” Sharp said.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced late Thursday that Duval County’s beaches and the city’s parks would reopen Friday afternoon, but only with restricted hours and they can only be used for walking, biking, hiking, fishing, running, swimming, surfing and taking care of pets.

“Folks, this could be the beginning of the pathway back to normal life, but please respect and follow these limitations," Curry said. “We'll get back to life as we know it but we must be patient."

In addition to limited hours and social distancing guidelines applied, other restrictions include:

  • No sunbathing, towels, blankets, chairs, coolers or grills will be permitted on Duval County beaches.
  • No organized group activities – this includes picnics or gatherings, team sports or any type of group activity.
  • Pavilions and picnic areas will remain closed.
  • All park restroom facilities will remain closed.
  • No overnight camping at Hanna or Huguenot parks is permitted.
  • Playground amenity usage at parks must follow social distancing requirements.

Parking is still shut down in Jacksonville Beach east of First Street. Out-of-towners should use the city’s other public lots. In Neptune and Atlantic Beach, people will be allowed to park at most accesses unless there’s a sign saying they can’t.

People at the beaches were excited to be able to get back out onto the sand.

“I’m planning on going and riding my bicycle or surfing,” Elliott Toney said.

Not everyone thought reopening the beaches was a good idea.

“There’s a potential for the virus to blow into the air, so I think it’s a risk,” resident Lisa Mancini said.

News4Jax reporters noticed some people who didn’t appear to be social distancing. It concerned Adam Bruhmke, who was visiting the beach.

“It’s on us as a society to follow the rules and social distancing measures, and looking around I feel like we might be in trouble of losing our privileges at the beach," Bruhmke said.

St. Johns County followed suit and immediately opened its beaches from 6 a.m. to noon, but only for physical activity and motion.

Activities again permitted on St. Johns County beaches seven mornings a week include walking, running, exercise, surfing, biking, fishing, swimming, surfing and other uses that require physical activity. As lifeguards may not be on duty, all swimming is done at your own risk.

“Walk to exercise not to socialize,” said Dawn C. Allicock, director of Florida Department of Health in St. Johns County. “As long as individuals adhere to the CDC guidelines of social distancing, getting exercise and fresh air can be beneficial for our citizens’ physical and mental health.”

During a special meeting Friday morning, Nassau County commissioners said they had expected the decision to reopen beaches would be made regionally and called Curry’s decision “unexpected,” “unfortunate,” “surprising” and a “knee-jerk reaction.”

Nassau County commissioners said there aren’t the resources to enforce the restrictions that would have to be in place and reopening the beaches would put first responders and lifeguards in harm’s way.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and other officials were criticized for leaving beaches open during spring break last month. Most counties closed their beaches in response or kept them open under very restrictive conditions.

At a Friday morning news conference, DeSantis supported the idea of reopening beaches, parks and other public spaces as long as social distancing is practiced.

“You look at how this disease is transmitted, it’s transmitted overwhelmingly when you are in close, sustained contact with people, usually in an indoor environment,” DeSantis said. “Going forward, we got to be promoting people to get exercise, do it in a good way, to do it in a safe way."

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.

Award-winning broadcast and multimedia journalist with 20 years experience.